Tuesday, 21st Week in Ordinary Time—Year I

Jesus said,

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. (But) these you should have done, without neglecting the others.”

The Mosaic Law commanded that one tenth of the produce of the land, of the new animals and the harvest, to be given (or tithed) to the priests and the temple. The scribal tradition had apparently extended this law to even the smallest herbs.

Jesus is not criticizing tithing, but rather the focusing on little externals for others to see, rather than on the important things. He is criticizing the practice religion with more interest in appearing holy than in actually and thoroughly being holy.

Have you ever been quietly praying, realized that someone might be seeing you, and then toned down your outward signs of piety? Maybe you wished that you could be invisible, so that nobody could see you, so that you could keep praying as before. We try not to look too holy. It’s good to be humble, and to not be a distraction to another’s prayer, and not to be after the empty praise of men, but how much of our experience, of subduing our outward signs of devotion, is actually really due to fear?

The Pharisees were concerned about other people seeing their acts of devotion so that others would think better of them. But I think our problem is different; we don’t want people to see our devotion, so they won’t think worse of us.

In Jesus’ setting, religious dedication was likely to be admired. Seeing the Pharisees carefully measure out their gifts at the temple an observer might say, “Wow, he even tithes his herbs and spices!  What a righteous son of Abraham!” But in our culture, the opposite of admiration, or contempt, often comes from Christian devotion.  “I heard that he and his wife give 10% to their church every year! Talk about brainwashed, religious kooks!”

If Jesus’ time was disposed to the fault of showy religiosity, ours seems inclined to religious timidity, or cowardice. Consider, how often does the name of Jesus, or the mention of God, leave our lips when we’re outside of Church? Do we pray at home before meals? Good! But what about when we go out to eat at restaurants?

I don’t think that most of us here are in danger of the Pharisees’ sin, of flaunting our piety before others, so much as we are in danger of being ashamed of Christ before men. As Jesus says, “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”

We should pray when we eat out at restaurants, just like we do at home. And we would all benefit from more frequent, thoughtful conversations about God and Jesus in our lives. And perhaps, instead of wishing that no one else would see you when you pray, maybe next time we should pray as if we didn’t know that there were people around us at all.

These are just little things, little acts of fidelity, but fidelity is one of the weightier things of the Law.

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